Monday, December 30, 2002

Hooray! Bring on the playoffs!!

I'm actually enjoying those special commercials they've made to trump up the playoffs, the ones featuring actor Don Cheadle. The only problem is, after his fine recent stint on ER playing a surgical intern suffering from Parkinson's, I partly expect him in the commercials to suddenly start twitching. That's how well he played that character.

(BTW, refer to my original set of predictions for this season here.)

:: First, a postmortem on the Buffalo Bills this season. My original take on them was that Drew Bledsoe would invigorate the offense, the defense would still be lousy, and the team would finish 6-10 after last year's 3-13 disaster. Well, Bledsoe did invigorate the offense, and the defense was lousy, but the team finished 8-8, and they were mathematically in playoff contention until the second-to-last week of the season. (Granted, thirteen of the AFC's sixteen teams were still mathematically alive, but….) So, obviously, the Bills have to improve the defense for next year.

Two words, then: PASS RUSH. The Bills recorded only 31 sacks this year, less than two per game. That means their secondary pretty much bore the brunt of all their pass defense, and while those guys have talent they're simply not up to keeping receivers bottled up and covered for the four or five seconds that opposing quarterbacks usually have to throw. The Bills have to improve their pass-rush.

They also need to improve against the run. Giving up more than 130 yards rushing per game is simply lousy. It allows the other team to set the tempo, control the clock, and grind down the Bills' defenders.

So, they need to add some beef to the defensive line, and probably another top-flight linebacker. An offseason like the one following 1994, when the Bills added LB Bryce Paup and DT Ted Washington, is what's needed now.

On offense, the Bills could add a legitimate center and a little depth on the offensive line. The o-line, which had been in decline for years, showed a lot of improvement this year (especially due to rookie Mike Williams and developing youngster Jonas Jennings), but they still gave up too many sacks and were too inconsistent off the line, especially at the end of the season. If Bledsoe is the immediate hope for this team, then the line – while improving – still needs to be better. Also, they need a good blocking back and a legitimate threat of a tight end. Larry Centers catches a mean ball, but he's not that great a blocker while current tight end Jay Riemersma is, as far as I am concerned, a bust. (Oh, and resigning Peerless Price might not be a bad idea. Really.)

Finally, the Bills need to have better play selection next year. Bad play calling in crucial games killed the Bills this year, both in the Bills not adjusting their offense for the defenses they faced in the latter part of the season and in the Bills making very odd play selections in key situations, like calling a roll-out passing play on second-and-goal from the one-yard line or punting on fourth-and-one when in Patriots territory, but not quite in field-goal range, while trailing in the third quarter. Marv Levy was always criticized as being too conservative and unwilling to make changes in the face of what opponents were doing. The current Bills are the same way, and that needs to change.

No predictions for next year until I know who is on the team, so I'll wait until late August. 8-8? I'll take it.

:: Some people just don't deserve the luck they have, like that guy in West Virginia who won the Power Ball – despite the fact that he's already a millionaire. The New England Patriots are the same way. Once again, luck decides to smile on these guys, and the result is they won a game they had no business winning. First they get a defensive pass interference call against the Dolphins, on a play when the Pats receiver in question clearly pushed off. Then they get to sit back and watch as the Dolphins, late in the fourth and deep in their own territory with a slim lead to protect, decide not to run that guy in their backfield who has led the league in rushing this year and has set the Dolphins' all time single season rushing records and has rushed for two-hundred yards in two consecutive games and has had a great day running the ball all day. No, clearly that situation calls for dropping back into the end zone and throwing the ball. And not just throwing it anywhere, but at the receiver who happens to be covered by New England's best defensive back. I'm wondering if Dave Wanstedt was wandering the Miami sideline when he happened upon a looseleaf binder marked, "The Official Playbook of Mike Martz".

And then, the Patriots not only win the coin toss in overtime, but they get the Dolphins' kicker booting the kickoff out-of-bounds so they get the ball on their own 40, so all they have to do is pick up about 25 yards for their own kicker, who must have naked photos of the football gods in his locker, so automatic is he in anything remotely resembling a clutch kick.

That's two weeks in a row I've rooted for the Dolphins, and two weeks in a row they've blown it. Stupid Dolphins.

:: But, all is not lost! The Jets blew out the Packers, putting both the Dolphins and Patriots on vacation. I'll refrain from posting that goofy Jets cheer.

:: Time, then, to recap my predictions for the division winners and compare them to reality. Here are the actual winners, with my original predicted winners in parentheses:

AFC East: NY Jets (Miami)
AFC North: Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh)
AFC South: Tennessee (Tennessee)
AFC West: Oakland Oakland
AFC wildcards: Indianapolis, Cleveland (New England, Denver)

NFC East: Philadelphia (Philadelphia)
NFC North: Green Bay (Green Bay)
NFC South: Tampa Bay (Tampa Bay)
NFC West: San Francisco (St. Louis)
NFC wildcards: New York Giants, Atlanta (San Francisco, Chicago)

Not too bad. I picked six out of eight divisions correctly. I didn't do very well on the wild-cards, mainly because I didn't foresee the Rams and the Bears having seasons as bad as they did, relative to how they fared in 2001. I failed to account for the fact that in any given NFL season, some of the previous year's playoff teams are going to have disastrous outings, which always makes for at least one clunker of a game on Monday Night Football, since those games are always chosen in such a way that at least one of the previous year's playoff teams is participating.

:: My two Super Bowl picks are both division champs. The Steelers don't have home-field advantage, so their chances of making the Super Bowl are actually better than top-seed Oakland's, if recent history is any guide. Eight of the last ten AFC teams to go into the playoffs as top seed have failed to get to the Super Bowl (the 1993 Bills and the 1998 Broncos being the two that made it), and the home team has lost the last three AFC Championship Games. As for the Eagles, they're home for the playoffs. Home field is actually important in the NFC, with the last ten NFC top seeds advancing to the Super Bowl seven times (the exceptions being the 1992 and 1997 49ers and the 1998 Vikings). So, I'm sticking with my picks until the bitter, bitter end. And maybe even beyond it….

:: If I'm one of the top college players, the guys who have a real chance at being the number one pick, I'd give serious thought to faking an injury at the scouting combine or something. Anything to avoid getting picked by the Bengals.

:: Just to return to the Eagles for one minute: there are a lot of fine coaches in the NFL right now, but Andy Reed (Reid? Ried? Reade? I should look that up….) has done perhaps the most impressive job. Like many observers, I gave the Eagles up for maybe a wildcard berth when Donovan McNabb went down, and then I gave them up for dead when Koy Detmer went down. That an NFL team having its third-string QB, a guy who hasn't started a game since he was a junior in college or something like that, and not missing a beat on the way to securing the top seed in the playoffs, is surely indicative of one of the finest coaching jobs in modern history. In any sport.

:: The Dolphins swooning in December is nothing new, but who could have thought they'd get the running back they always wanted, the NFL rushing leader, and swoon anyway? And now they have to give the Saints two first-round picks. Didn't pay off, did it?

:: The Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs? 'Tis a strange new world, it seems….

:: Something tells me that Brian Griese will not be back in Denver next year. He was never very well liked there, and the Broncos' underachievement this year will probably do him in.

:: Doing this every Monday has been fun this year. I'll probably post some smaller bits about the playoffs as they happen, up to and including the Super Bowl. Congratulations to all the teams in the playoffs, and better luck next year to the ones who didn't get there. Except the Pats and Dolphins.

[EDIT: Somehow I failed to include the Jets in the list of division winners.]

I finally completed the first draft of the story whose ending has had me in knots for months now, and I am already on to the next one. There is an interesting "contrast of processes" in play here: on the last story, I knew the beginning but had no idea how it would turn out, whereas on this new story I know the last scene but have no idea how the story gets there. This is usually how things play out in my writing; I simply cannot use an outline, finding them too restrictive and ultimately useless when halfway through the work I realize that there's a new path the thing can take that I like a lot better than the outline.

But then, I also suspect my distaste for outlines for my inability to "write short"; perhaps it's the lack of a plan that results in a lot of meandering that pushes the word-count to higher-than-publishable levels. I do tend to be a fairly malevolent editor of my own work, never excising less than ten percent of my material when I produce my second draft (and sometimes a lot more). That means that assuming that the word count on my first draft of the just-completed story is around 15,000 words (a guesstimate based on the number of pages covered by my scrawling), I plan to cut at least 1,500 words and hopefully more.

The last story, as noted, was about beer. The new one? It's about baseball.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

In the last three days I have watched films that contained two of the finest closing lines, ever. The first was My Fair Lady, of which I wrote yesterday. ("Eliza? Where the Devil are my slippers?") The other, which I watched last night, is the always wonderful The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone. The film ends with Flynn, who has just been ordered by King Richard to wed the Maid Marian, calling out, "May I obey all your commands with equal pleasure, sire!" Of course, the greatest closing line in a film of all time comes from Casablanca ("Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"), which is noteworthy for the fact that the line used was one of three possibilities, each of which was recorded for dubbing by Humphrey Bogart well after principal photography had ended.

Films don't always need a great last line -- none of the Star Wars films do, each of them ending instead with a fine visual -- but they can really help. Here is a sampling of my favorites.

"I'll be right here." (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Maybe this one doesn't quite count, since Elliot responds with a barely audible, whispered "Bye". But I count it.)

"It turns out, I've got a rose garden." (The American President. This one is iffy as well, if you consider the Sergeant-of-arms shouting "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!", as Michael Douglas as President Shepherd enters the Capitol to give his State of the Union Address, to be an actual line of dialog. I file it under "ambient sound".)

"I used to hate the water."
"Can't imagine why." (Jaws. OK, so it's an exchange and not a line. Ugh!)

"Made you look!" (Aladdin.)

"It's nice to meet you." (Sleepless In Seattle.)

"Fishgill!" (Wayne's World. Well, maybe not.)

"Walt Whitman once said, 'I see great things in baseball. It's our game--the American game.' He said 'it will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.' You could look it up...." (Bull Durham.)

"I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams." (The Shawhank Redemption.)

Help me out here, folks. I've got to be missing a bunch of great last lines.

I recently checked one of Pauline Kael's books out of the library (When the Lights Go Down), and in the course of dipping into this book I've been considering critics and the critical process.

On the face of it, a critic's job is to examine some work of art – a movie, a book, a piece of music, an exhibition at an art gallery – and then to write about it, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, placing it in some kind of context with regard to the history of whichever form of art it is, and make a value judgment about the degree to which the work in question is successful. This is a bit more complex than the more popular concept of a critic's job, in which we assume that a critic exists merely to tell us what is good and what is bad; the critic's assessments are typically more complex than this, if the critic is of the thoughtful variety. We try to condense critical opinions, though, and to quantify them; when a new movie comes out, we turn to the critics not for an appraisal of its strengths as a film but for a simple answer to the question of whether or not we should see it. Thus we have things like star-rating systems, which give a quick idea of a critic's assessment, or in some cases we reduce it even further, to a binary rating: thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

But star ratings are not always adequate. Consider two Roger Ebert reviews: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and My Cousin Vinny. The difference in the star ratings is a mere half a star, with the former film getting two stars and the latter earning two-and-a-half. But reading the actual reviews, one senses that Ebert's estimations of the films are farther apart than that; one gets the distinct impression that he enjoyed the latter while he did not enjoy the former.

The reviews in the Kael book do not carry star ratings; I don't know if she ever employed them. She wrote primarily for The New Yorker, a more "high-brow" publication, and her reviews are written in a voice that suggests that she knows that people are reading her reviews as writing pieces in themselves, at least moreso than Ebert, who as a newspaper critic presumably has a readership that is more concerned with what to go see at the local matinee. (Not that Ebert is not a good writer, mind you; in fact, Ebert is my favorite critic because of his writing style, which is squarely in the Chicago liberal journalism tradition whose favorite son was the wonderful Mike Royko.) Ebert has always maintained that his role as a critic is to convey, as precisely as he can, the actual aesthetic experience that he had when watching the film. This is also my approach when I write reviews of whatever books, films or music I encounter in this space.

I confess to being bemused by critics who take Kael's tone. She writes using something like the "Royal 'We'", as in, "The film never engages our emotions" or "We never believe the heroine's plight" and the like. Setting aside the fact that I've always found the Royal 'We' a bit creepy – I can't help but envision the speaker referring to multiple personalities within her cranium – the implication of such a tone seems to convey a certain belief in the factual status of the critic’s opinion. This is something that bothers me about just about every critic I've ever encountered: the apparent belief that the critic isn’t saying "I, myself, think this movie is bad" but "This movie IS bad". I am deeply suspicious of the critic-as-arbiter-of-quality, for a number of reasons. I tend to get defensive and occasionally resentful when someone sagely informs me that something I like is lousy, or that something I think is lousy is actually great, as if to say that I have somehow missed the boat entirely. My critical skepticism is also aroused almost immediately whenever someone, anyone, uses the word "objective" in any appraisal of any work of art. What critics so often take as "objectivity" is, in my experience, simply the application of a lifetime's worth of subjective criteria and opinions combined with the actual emotional response the critic experienced in perusing a new work. I have also noticed that the claim of "objectivity" is almost exclusively made by people taking a negative view of something. I have read all manner of commentary on, say, The Phantom Menace that will include a sentence like this: "I'm not a Star Wars fan, so I can view the film objectively and describe its flaws". This is rhetorical nonsense, designed only to put the critic's views on some kind of a priori high ground compared with that of the other person. To dislike something is an opinion, precisely as much as it is to like it. Being able to qualify exactly why one dislikes something is certainly valuable, but it’s not "objective". The height of Mount Everest can be determined objectively. The quality of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 cannot.

By far, though, the main reason I distrust critics as actual arbiters of artistic value is that they are, quite simply, often wrong. This is the inescapable conclusion I drew from a wonderful book, A Lexicon of Musical Invective. This book has a very simple structure and purpose: it is a collection of negative quotes from classical music critics about musical works that have long since entered the standard repertoire and become classics – works like Wagner's operas, Brahms's symphonies, Debussy's preludes, Strauss's tone poems, et cetera. The quotes in the book are from the leading music critics of the times in which the works were originally performed, at a time when classical music critics were far, far more important than they are today. Back then, nearly every major newspaper and many minor ones had full-time music critics, whereas these days relatively few major papers employ full-time critics, or even part-time ones. These were the "arbiters-of-quality", the "objective voices", the persons whose job it was to pass judgment on new works and inform the public as to whether or not they were good. And in so many cases, they got it wrong. The ultimate measure of quality seems to be the oft-cited "test of time", but if that is the case, then the critic's job becomes absurd, because it is quite impossible to decide what is going to last and what is going to fall by the wayside. It is also impossible to judge which works are going to immediately fade away but become more and more prominent with time, as the music of Bach did.

So what is a critic for, if not to tell us what is good and bad? Simply, in my view, to tell us what the critic thinks is good and bad. Ultimately, though, the rest is up to us. This does not absolve us of the responsibility of educating ourselves, if we are interested in something deeper than mere enjoyment of something. If the fourteen-year-old kid next door tells me that the new movie out is a masterpiece, then this doesn't hold as much weight as if Roger Ebert, with his lifetime of study and encyclopedic knowledge of film, tells me that the same movie is a masterpiece; however, this only applies to the probability that I will like the film. What ultimately matters is not the critic's experience at the film or the fourteen-year-old kid's experience. What matters is my experience. A critic, then, is only useful inasmuch as he or she reports objectively on the experience they had, without mistaking that for objectively reporting on the thing itself. Critics who acknowledge the actual emotional experience a given work of art provoked within them are far more credible to me than critics who seem to be ticking off a set of "required elements", as if they are Olympic figure-skating judges. My question for critics of the latter type is this: If you know, to such a high degree of precision, what it is that constitutes a great work of art, then why aren't you putting that knowledge to better use than this by actually creating great works of art instead of endlessly carping about works that fall short so massively obviously?

Saturday, December 28, 2002

The traditional Christmas movie for most people, apparently, is It's A Wonderful Life. I've never much cared for that film, though -- I find it overlong and cloying. The whole "Capra-esque fantasy" thing was done much more effectively, for my money, in Field of Dreams. My traditional Christmas-season film has nothing, really, to do with Christmas, but it has everything to do with dreams and love and the majesty of the English language. The film is My Fair Lady.

I've always loved musicals, and among composer-and-lyricist teams, Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner are my favorites. This is their towering achievement, when music of consumate charm blends perfectly with lyrics of sparkling wit and life. Only Lerner and Loewe could make wonderful songs of such character qualities as elitism ("Why Can't the English"), sloth ("With a Little Bit o' Luck"), drink ("Get Me To the Church On Time"), and misogyny ("I'm an Ordinary Man", "A Hymn to Him"), all the while never depicting these qualities as desirable but not quite as faults, either. And what a film it is that does not treat the growing love between the two main characters, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, into something they resist as strongly as they can as opposed to an elemental force to be cherished. A telling moment comes when Freddie Aynsford-Hill, hopelessly smitten with Eliza even though he has spoken to her but once, launches into a rapturous love song ("Speak, and the world is full of singing; my heart is winging higher than the birds....") only to have Eliza harshly interrupt him ("Show Me"), because she is so sick of "words, words, words". My Fair Lady is a film where Professor Higgins does not even admit that he has fallen in love with Eliza, but that she has become a part of his life in such a way that "her ups and downs are second-nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in". Only Professor Higgins could admit his love in the words, "I've grown accustomed to her face".

My Fair Lady also succeeds on the visual level. Every scene, almost every shot, is carefully considered with wonderful attention to nuance and detail. From the opening credits, ablaze with color in a montage of flowers, to the streets outside Covent Garden, to the Professor's study (I want a writing-room like that), to the race at Ascotte, to the stunning glory of the Embassy Ball -- My Fair Lady is a gorgeous antidote to the darkness that seems prevalent in movies these days.

And I haven't even mentioned the glory that is Audrey Hepburn....

Last night CBS aired the annual Kennedy Center Honors, which were taped earlier this month. I don't watch the Honors every year, but I try to catch at least part of it each time out. It's vitally important that we recognize our artistic heritage and the luminaries who have shaped that heritage, which is what the Honors are all about. I do wish that there was an equivalent to the Honors for the non-performing arts, like writing and poetry, painting, and architecture; but to see classical musicians like James Levine honored alongside popular songwriters like Paul Simon and actors like James Earl Jones is always a thrill. (I must confess some ignorance, here: during the Paul Simon segment, almost no mention was made whatsoever of Art Garfunkel. Is Garfunkel still alive, and if so, was his parting with Simon that acrimonious?)

Since the conclusion of last night's telecast, I've been wondering what figures in the performing arts right now are likely to become Kennedy Center Honorees in the future. Below are some guesses of mine; these are all people whose body of work as it exists now seems to me worthy of the Kennedy Center. I'm not making any conjectures as to artists who may produce a body of work worthy of such, even though there are some who are fairly new to the scene who I do think are more likely than not to get there. (I'm thinking of actors like Kevin Spacey and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose track records in the decade or so they've been on the forefront clearly indicate Kennedy Center potential.) I'm restricting my speculations here to music and screen, since I know very little about the Broadway world. For instance, I had never heard of one of this year's honorees, Broadway dancer Chita Rivera, until I watched the actual telecast. I'm also not sure if the Kennedy Center Honors are meant for American citizens only. Persons like Placido Domingo, Sir Georg Solti and Julie Andrews have been honored in the past; I don't know if those are persons who have become citizens or if the Kennedy Center honors artists of any original nationality who have made substantial contributions to American culture.

(A year-by-year listing of all the Kennedy Center Honorees can be found here, by the way.)

:: FILM: Directors, Producers, and Screenwriters.

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, George Lucas, Stanley Donen, Ron Howard, Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman, David Mamet, Rob Reiner, Robert Zemeckis.

:: FILM: Actors and Actresses.

Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, John Cleese, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Robert DeNiro.

:: MUSIC: Classical and Jazz.

John Williams, Leonard Slatkin, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Anne Sophie-Mutter, Kathleen Battle, Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea. (I'd personally include Jerry Goldsmith along with John Williams, in terms of his greatness and longevity as a film composer, but I'm not sure he has the cultural visibility that John Williams has.)

:: MUSIC: Popular.

Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen. (I confess that I'm not sure to what degree a "stodginess" factor would work against a lot of rock musicians. Would the Kennedy Center single out, say, Edward Van Halen?)

:: OTHERS: Television, Comedy, Et Cetera.

David Letterman, George Carlin (although, again subject to stodginess), Jerry Seinfeld, Ken Burns, Dick Clark, Stephen Bochco.

OK, the comments section awaits: who have I missed? Keep in mind that it's "body of work over time" that applies here.

[EDIT: A link that was not working, is now working. The persons responsible for that link not working, have been sacked. The persons responsible for sacking those who have been sacked, have been sacked. And so on....]

Friday, December 27, 2002

I've made a couple of additions to "Other Journeys" at left. Rather than describe their content, I'm just putting them up and encouraging exploration. (They're marked "New", for now -- meaning, "new" to my blogroll, not "new" in general. Even though one of them actually is "New".)

Usual disclaimers apply: my linking to a blog does not imply agreement with the content of such. In fact, there are a couple to which I've linked that occasionally have me wishing to yank out my own hair, so strongly do I disagree. In cases such as those, other factors come into play.

Book notes:

:: A few days ago I finished reading David Brin's science fiction novel Sundiver. This is the first novel in his Uplift series, which as far as I can tell involves two separate trilogies. The central concept of the series, that of "Uplift", is that all sentient species in the galaxy have been "uplifted" to sentience by a previous, older species -- all species, that is, except humanity, which appears to have had no benefactor species at all. Humanity may well be the only species that did not receive a helping hand.

The Uplift series -- sometimes called a "saga" -- has been cited in some places as being a space opera, with giant wars and ancient races and relics and whatnot; I was thus surprised that this book is basically cast as a mystery, and it's not the most involving one, unfortunately. A scientist named Jacob Demwa is working to "uplift" dolphins when he is asked to join an expedition into the upper portions of the Sun itself in a spherical ship called a "Sunship", in order to observe a race of aliens that actually live within the star itself. This whole idea is fascinating, and the best parts of the book evoke that "sense of wonder" that drives all of the best science fiction, and this facet of the book is really why I recommend reading it. The mystery plot, involving various scientific factions and a galactic "pecking order" amongst the races and species, is less involving because it's fairly clear who the villain actually is (although the way in which it's all revealed is fairly nifty). It's one of those mysteries that the reader can solve by filling in the blank for the sentence, "It would be the most surprising for the murderer to turn out to be _____" So I found myself absorbed in the dives into the sun, in the interactions with the solar beings, and the explorations of Brin's future while I also found myself skimming over the "investigation" bits (which include one of those standard "parlor gatherings" that ended every Agatha Christie novel). I've looked at a few reviews of Sundiver since I finished it, and the consensus opinion seems to be that the Uplift series gets much, much better after this first novel (which is also Brin's first novel, period). Some even call the series a classic, so Sundiver is successful in that I want to read more of this universe and explore more of these ideas. On the grading curve, I guess I'd call it a B-minus.

:: I was delighted last week to find that my local public library had copies of Asimov on Science Fiction and Asimov's Galaxy: Reflections on Science Fiction, both by the great Isaac Asimov. These books, or at least the essays contained within, should be sought out by anyone interested in the background or nuts-and-bolts of science fiction. The essays -- many of them written for Asimov's Science Fiction, one of the last SF magazines still being published -- reflect Dr. Asimov's views on various matters pertaining to science, science fiction, science fiction writing, writing in general, fantasy, and occasional political matters. Asimov's fiction writing nowadays seems very unsophisticated, and in a lot of ways it really is, but Asimov was a leading light in SF for many, many years -- but still, too few -- and these essays capture the thoughts of one of the twentieth centuries most fluid and liveliest minds. Some of the essays have been reprinted elsewhere, but I haven't read many of them in a long time -- at least five years for some of them -- so I greatly welcomed encountering them again. To this day, Asimov's blunt statement regarding the importance of learning spelling and grammar is the best such formulation I have ever seen:

Besides, take it from an old war-horse, if your spelling and grammar are rotten, you won't be writing a great and gorgeous story. Someone who can't use a saw and hammer does not turn out stately furniture.


The presents are opened, the toys have all been played with at least once, much food has been consumed, and a large tree with lights still sits in the living room, although it is now beginning to dry out a bit and drop the needles that will still be piercing the flesh of an unsuspecting foot next August. Christmas has come, and gone.

We had a lovely time this year. We attended a church service on Christmas Eve, although we had to go to the early service instead of the late one; then we went out for our traditional drive to observe Christmas lights on people's houses culminating in a drive through Lights On the Lake, an amazing drive-through Christmas light display on the shores of Onondaga Lake (the lake at one end of which Syracuse is located). As we drove through Lights On The Lake, we listened to our local classical station's broadcast of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a gorgeous concert of sacred music involving a number of St. Olaf College musical ensembles. (This brought back a flood of memories of my own college experiences with our own annual Christmas musical pageant. Remember those, Sean?)

We marked Christmas morning by making waffles and sausage for breakfast -- one of our favorite meals, but one which we don't indulge in often because, well, it's not that healthy. (I tend to view waffles as a delivery-mechanism for large quantities of Mrs. Butterworth's.) Then, after we'd eaten our fill -- we would not eat again until dinnertime, we were so full -- it was off to the tree to open presents, with the observation that this is probably the last Christmas for a number of years into the future that we will be able to sleep in. I expect our daughter next year to start the business of waking us up slightly before sunrise in order to open everything.

The best gift I received was a VHS copy of the Extended Version of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which I had no idea was even released on VHS (and in widescreen, to boot). Circumstances have conspired in such a way as to keep us behind the DVD revolution, but now I will get to see the four-hour version of the film at long long last, which means that a certain friend of mine will have one less thing to pester me about every time I encounter him online. (You know who you are....) Something of a tradition of mine is that I give my wife a new book, which she invariably loves and ends up losing a bit of sleep because she reads the book before going to sleep at night and I always manage to pick out one of those "Well, just one more chapter" types of books. This year it's Ken Follett's new one, Hornet Flight.

But the best thing was watching our daughter open her gifts. I've noticed that there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who look at the toys kids have today and say, "Man, the toys we had in my day are sure better than this crap!" and the ones who look on today's toys and think, "Man, I wish I'd had these toys, because mine were sure crap!" I tend to fall in the latter camp, although I don't think my toys were lousy. It's just that these are so cool...expecially the LeapPad. This is just totally nifty, and it's already getting us more quiet time as she plays with it in her room. Hooray and Huzzah for the LeapPad!!

There were also the obligatory new videos: Monsters Inc. (which we've already seen), Ice Age (which we haven't), and a Veggie Tales video. We've become pretty big fans of Veggie Tales, even if the tomato-guy by his look reminds me ever-so-slightly of Cartman from South Park.

Dinner, for those still reading this post, included ham, corn in butter sauce, garlic-and-parmesan couscous (couscous being one of the greatest foods ever invented, as far as I am concerned) and a nice Zinfandel. (Real, red Zinfandel, not the "white" Zin -- although I do like white Zin as a summertime wine, when blush wines tend to fare better.)

Setting aside the religious importance of Christmas, I love all the trappings of the holiday -- the trees, the colored lights, the ornaments, the music. It never bothers me in the slightest measure that the trees start going up in the department stores and malls in October; what bothers me more are the now-bare trees I see hauled out to the sidewalk for weekly garbage pickup on December 27. It bothers me that to such a degree we have relegated beauty -- even the simple beauty of a tree with colored lights and sparkly ornaments hung upon its branches -- to such a specific timeframe, to be complained about if it's begun too early and to be dispensed with according to a specific timetable. (Not that it should stay in the living room until March, of course. We're not the Simpsons, after all.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

To all the readers -- loyal, occasional and accidental -- of Byzantium's Shores: I wish you all the merriest of Christmases.

"Noel: Christmas Eve 1913", by Robert Bridges (1844-1930).

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marvelling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderley to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.

An addendum to yesterday's football thoughts: I had no delusions that the Steelers would be able to go into Tampa and win, especially with the Bucs striving for home-field advantage. Well, was I ever wrong...the bone-jarring, drive-snuffing defense turned out to be Pittsburgh's, as they were able to make the ten points the offense scored stand up, and add a touchdown of their own to boot. And it is always a pleasure to see a trash-talker like Warren Sapp (a player I actually like, although I wish he'd tone it down a bit) get beat.

John Madden summed up the meaning to the Bucs of losing last night's game best. Al Michaels noted that by losing, instead of having a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs, they would instead have to play a first-round game at home and then have to go on the road to either Green Bay or Philadelphia, and then to the other of those two locations the next week. Madden replied, "If they go to one of those places in the second round, they won't get to the other one the week after."

And now, of course, both of my Super Bowl picks have won their divisions. [Voice of the Emperor]Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen....[resume normal voice]

A quick maintenance note: the Image of the Week will be taking two weeks off, this week and next week. Also, there will be no further updates this week until Friday.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Note to political commentators: Beware "auto-correct" spelling programs in your word processors and weblog software. One of the MSN homepage's headlines this morning had the presumptive new Senate Majority Leader's surname as "First".

And now I can't help but think of the Captain Oveur character in Airplane!....

Just a few notes on yesterday's football action:

:: As expected, the Bills fell to the Packers. Going into Lambeau field on a sub-freezing day in December, when the Pack is having a good year, is an almost impossible task for anyone. Of course, that doesn't mean that the Bills needed to help them out by giving up six turnovers. And I'm a bit chagrined that after I set up camp in Sean's comment section defending Drew Bledsoe, the Bills' QB goes out and has his worst games of the year, by far. Ugh. And a double ugh, considering that the Bills' defense, which I have been maligning all year, had its best game yesterday.

The game did point out the one thing I think the Bills need to add to their offense for next year. (Well, maybe two things.) They already have the outstanding receiver duo (and maybe trio, when promising rookie Josh Reed blossoms); they've got the franchise quarterback; they've got the franchise running back; they've got the young and quickly improving offensive line (not that you could tell by yesterday's abominable pass-blocking, but anyway....). They still need a good tight end, something the Bills have lacked since Pete Metzelaars retired years ago. Jay Riemersma simply isn't it, and the big contract that John Butler gave him was simply unwarranted then and insane now. The other thing the Bills really need, especially for games like yesterdays -- cold-climate games with wind conditions that hobble the passing game -- is a good, blocking fullback. Larry Centers is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield (he has more receptions than any RB in NFL history), but he's not a great blocker. I remember how in the early 90s, when the Cowboys were so good, Emmitt Smith would run behind the blocking of not only a great offensive line but the superior blocking of fullback Moose Johnston. A good lead blocker yesterday would made a big difference in Travis Henry's output in a game where he only had 2.3 yards per carry. The Bills were unable to establish their running game yesterday, despite a JCPenney shopping bag full of opportunities to do so.

So the Bills are officially out of the playoff hunt, and I am now just a football fan. Could be worse, eh?

:: It's official: I now dislike the Patriots more than I dislike the Dolphins. That said, it looks like the Dolphins are about to complete another of their patented December swoons (which they incidentally seem to have licensed out to the Saints and Chargers this year) by losing to the Pats this coming week. The Dolphins can win the division by winning at New England, but they are 2-5 on the road, and history doesn't particularly favor teams from South Florida going to snowy, northern stadiums in December. However, the Jets' defeat of the Pats last night means that the Jets, who are home for the Packers, can win the division if the Pats do, in fact, defeat Miami. So next week I'm rooting for Miami and the Jets.

:: I didn't see last night's Jets-Patriots game, but judging by his linescore, Tom Brady was not particularly impressive. (19-37, 133 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception.)

:: Super Bowl prediction update: The Eagles are in position to clinch home-field advantage next week, and a win in either of their next two games clinches the AFC North for the Steelers.

:: The Titans and the Giants may be the most dangerous teams right now.

Updates to Byzantium's Shores will be light this week, considering the holiday and other projects that I am trying to shove out of my cranium. I'm in the home stretch of the novel-in-progress, and the story that's been fermenting in my mind is at last ready to be bottled (on second thought, I don't like that metaphor...). I am working on a few longer essays for eventual appearance here, but none of them are done yet.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Even though I don't live in Buffalo anymore, I still care deeply about the old hometown. When you hear about all the old, industrial Northeastern cities that fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s but then made big comebacks in the 1990s, with revitalized downtowns and commitments to high-tech industries to shore up the eroding tax bases -- cities like Cleveland and Baltimore -- one also notes, lurking in the background, those other poor cities, the ones knocking on the window and crying, "Can I play too?" That's Buffalo, sadly -- a city with miles and miles of undeveloped waterfront land that, for more than a decade, has had local politicians saying "We've got to develop that land!" and then having nothing happen; a city that is grasping not just at casino gambling, but Indian-run casino gambling (which, according to last week's TIME Magazine, in all likelihood will not even benefit the Indians running the thing) as the latest silver-bullet to jump-start a downtown that only needs a few tumbleweeds and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to finish the current look; a city where financial management is so bad that the City Controller literally could not find some of the city's money; a city whose economy is such dire straits that even in a time of fiscal crisis the city officials found a way to ride to the rescue of, not a local factory or hospital or other big industry, but K-Mart.

So it's not at all surprising to read today that the Buffalo Sabres may be forced to leave town if the city and state can't help get the team sold. And I won't be at all surprised if they find the money, somehow. They found it when the Sabres threatened to leave town unless they got a new arena; they found it when the Bills likewise threatened to leave unless Ralph Wilson Stadium (then Rich Stadium), a county-owned facility, were significantly upgraded; they found it when K-Mart threatened to leave the city. (And we're talking about one store here -- that's all. They kept a single K-Mart open.) They couldn't find it, though, when there wasn't enough to keep all the fire departments and police precincts open. They haven't been able to find enough to keep from having to close schools and repair the ones still open.

Hockey's not my thing, really, but I love sports. I think that professional sports (and collegiate sports, if there is a good program in town) add a great deal to a municipality's lifestyle. I root for the Bills very strongly, and I do root for the Sabres, even though I'm far from passionate about them. I'd hate to see Buffalo lose its franchises, but I'm not sure that spending the money to keep them -- when there are bigger, more important problems to be solved -- is a good idea. When we're saying "Gee, we just can't give the schools and the arts the funding they want, but we'll see what we can come up with for the hockey team", I think the priorities are a bit, maybe just a little, a tiny bit, f*cked up. And I'm not at all convinced that sports bring in huge amounts of revenue, nor am I convinced that they spawn business development. I've driven through too many areas -- in Buffalo and in other cities -- where these arenas, stadiums and ballparks exist, surrounded by nothing but parking lots, empty buildings and nothing else.

A recurrent topic in Buffalo is the city's "brain-drain": the fact that the bright, young people almost inevitably leave once they become adults because good jobs are very scarce there. In effect, the city's young -- its children -- are saying, "We may be forced to leave town if you can't come up with the jobs that we want." Faced with that choice on the one hand by its children, and on the other by its hockey team, Buffalo keeps choosing to keep the hockey team.

Is this any way to run a city?

I haven't seen The Two Towers yet. I don't know when I'll get to see it, but I'm hoping for sometime next week. It's hard waiting, but then, I've survived long waits for movies before. I survived the sixteen years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, after all.

So, now that Trent Lott has stepped down as Majority Leader, the question naturally rises for the Democrats: what next?

It seems to me that the Democrats have an opportunity here, but it's an opportunity that is almost always missed when it arises in the course of political life. When politicians reach a fork in the road, and this particular opportunity lies one way, the politicians almost invariably choose the other path. What is the opportunity? The chance to shut up, say nothing, and move on to the next thing.

By this I mean, no gloating; no crowing and attacking; no rubbing of the hands with glee before looking around and saying, "Who's next?" I'm hoping that the whole Lott fiasco does not start another feeding frenzy of the sort that consumed politics from the late 1980s -- when Senate Democrats organized to scrub President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court -- and well into the 1990s, when the unfortunate phrase "the blood sport of Washington" became so apt. Perhaps the fact that a great deal of the pressure on Lott came, eventually, from Republicans may alleviate any need for reprisal and counterattack. Perhaps.

This isn't to say, though, that the entire issue should be swept under the rug. I was listening to the public radio program Here and Now earlier today, and they had a guest -- a journalist whose name I do not recall -- express the fear that Lott's decision to step down as Majority Leader would put an end to the entire story, which involves the larger reality that racial issues are still a very big problem in America. This journalist drew a parallel with the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when for about a week after the verdict there was a great deal of concern in the national media about what it all meant -- especially the fact that whites by and large thought that Simpson had gotten away with murder, whereas an almost identical proportion of African Americans felt that the correct verdict had been rendered. What did this mean for race relations in the United States? We still don't know, because no real dialog ever took place -- instead, we moved on to the next story. I hope that this does not happen here, but I fear it will: we will say to ourselves, "There, someone said something racist and got what he deserved, so we can stop concerning ourselves with race for a while." That would be the wrong thing to do.

As for Lott, I'm fine with him staying in the Senate while abdicating his leadership position. I'm a firm believer in letting the punishment fit the crime, and I don't feel that his comments -- stupid and racist as they were -- warranted his removal, either forced or by back-room coercion, from the Senate. (Now, his comments might very well warrant his removal from office by the voters, which is one reason why I have always been against term limits for elected officials. A lame-duck officeholder has nothing whatsoever to lose by saying or doing things as dumb as this.) I felt the same way during the impeachment of President Clinton: he did a loutish thing, but it did not warrant his removal from office. In a little more than a month, Trent Lott has gone from salivating over the prospects of leading one half of a Republican-controlled Congress with a Republican President and a friendly Supreme Court down the street; now he's just one more member of the Senate. That's pretty far to fall, in and of itself.

Thursday, December 19, 2002


"Icebound Lake Boat", Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)

Charles Burchfield lived for part of his life in Gardenville, NY, a small suburb of Buffalo (now part of the Town of West Seneca). He is one of the premier American painters, and his work reflects the natural world of the Great Lakes region in which he lived. I came to know his work through visiting the Charles E. Burchfield Nature and Art Center, a park in West Seneca that is a mix of nature preserve, art gallery, outdoor sculpture park, and outdoor performance space. It's one of the places I miss the most in having moved from Buffalo.

Russian Romantic Composers, part two.

Yesterday I wrote in general about the Russian composers during the Romantic period, in an effort to place some of the artistic context of The Brothers Karamazov. Today, I'd like to discuss a few specific composers and works.

:: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky is the most famous name in Russian Romantic music, and with the possible exception of Igor Stravinsky he is probably the most famous Russian composer of all time. His music is imbued with the Russian character, and in his music one can most readily hear the qualities that distinguish the other Russian Romantics: sweeping, epic melodies; scherzos that are redolent of folk-dances; dramatic and fiery contrasts; evocative orchestrations. He is perhaps the quintessential Romantic: the tortured, emotional genius who poured all of his sufferings into his art, living a fairly unhappy life as a closeted homosexual before dying young of cholera. Tchaikovsky's music isn't strictly Nationalistic, but it is a natural extension of the Russian Nationalist masters who came before him.

His most famous works are the Romeo at Juliet Overture; the Piano Concerto No. 1; the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; and the great ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. I love all of the ballets, and of course no audiophile should be without a blistering, digital recording of the 1812 Overture to display the abilities of one's speakers. While I've never responded much to his symphonies, the Fifth is my favorite while the Fourth is the most Russian in character and the Sixth is the most blatantly emotional.

(The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recordings of the ballets, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, come in handsome boxed sets with cardboard cut-outs of the characters, folding backdrop sets, and illustrated liner notes that tell the story beautifully.)

:: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Not much of Rimsky-Korsakov's music is played today, but more's the pity as his music is often wonderful. According to Harold Schonberg, Rimsky-Korsakov was the most Nationalist of the Russian Romantics, so it's a bit ironic that he is primarily known for works that purport to depict lands other than Russia: the Capriccio Espagnol, inspired by Iberia, and the magnificent Scheherazade, which happens to be one of my favorite musical works of all time. He is also known for Flight of the Bumblebee, the Russian Easter Overture, and Tsar-Saltan.

(The best recordings of Scheherazade I've heard are the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.)

:: Modest Moussorgsky (1839-1881). Moussorgsky's most famous work, to regular listeners, is probably Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite for piano inspired by a series of paintings by an artist friend of the composer's who had died the year before. The work was later orchestrated by Ravel, and this orchestral version has become a standard in the standard concert repertoire. Almost as famous is his tone-poem Night on Bald Mountain, played most often in its form edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. Moussorgsky's masterpiece is his opera Boris Godunov, a work with which I am unfamiliar.

(The Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain are among the most frequently recorded works in the entire spectrum of classical music. On many CDs the works are paired together. The one I own is performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti.)

:: Vasili Kalinnikov (1866-1901). The history of any art is replete with names of promising artists whose youthful works, while rough and awkward, show flashes of brilliant talent that would never blossom because of a tragic, early death. Film actor James Dean may be the most famous example; in the case of the Russian Romantics, Kalinnikov's name is notable in this regard. (Mozart is not an example of this phenomenon; although he did indeed die young, his musical output is one of staggering genius with many works of transcendent perfection as opposed to promise of what might have been.) Kalinnikov is known by a handful of works, the best being his two symphonies. These works are loaded with beautiful melodies, powerful orchestral tuttis, delicate sonic structures in the slow movements, and thrilling cyclic constructions. The works have awkward transitions, and occasionally threaten to overstay their welcome, but to listen to these symphonies is to hear an uncommon musical mind at work and to wonder what that mind might have produced had it not perished too soon.

(Kalinnikov's two Symphonies are available on an excellent Naxos CD, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar. And since it's a Naxos CD, it can be had for less than ten bucks. Naxos rules!)

I looked at the new proposals for the WTC site, and I was glad that unlike the first batch, these seem to have some vision. What's separating the two sets of plans is the way the first set was geared around making the new buildings blend into the surrounding skyline of Lower Manhattan, which is something many architectural experts never felt the original WTC did; there was a real way in which the original Twin Towers were not beloved until they were actually destroyed on September 11, 2001. The new plans, though, for the most part call for height and grandeur, which I for one am glad to see. I strongly feel that whatever gets built there, needs to soar.

My favorite is this one, by Studio Daniel Libeskind of Berlin:

I find this design beautiful, elegant and distinctive. Not so, however, the design by the United States' Meier Eisenman Gwathmey Holl. It seems to me that my first thought upon looking on the Lower Manhatten Skyline should not be, "X gets the square!"

This design is definitely grandiose, but I can't imagine it an improvement to build something that would clash with its surroundings even more than the original WTC purportedly did.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

I didn't watch 24 last season, but this season I am completely hooked. This show is totally riveting.

The plot this year involves the government learning of a terrorist plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, sometime during the "day" during which the entire season's shows take place. It's amazingly constructed entertainment, with every plot twist dovetailing together as it goes. One thing that's been bugging me, though, is the fact that since the entire season takes place in twenty-four hours, then obviously the nuke can't be set to detonate until the twenty-fourth episode, so I know exactly how much time Agent Jack Bauer has to find it. But last night they may have dealt with this particular problem, by setting things up so that when Jack finds out where the bomb is and gets there barely in time to stop it, the bomb almost certainly will not be there, because of an unexpected crimp in the terrorists' plans.

It's going to be hard waiting until May to see how this thing plays out....

(Some clever soul over on the message boards at AICN has dubbed the show "The Jack Bauer Power Hour". Funny thing, that.)

Yesterday morning, The Today Show did a brief segment honoring the anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- ninety-nine years ago. The segment was interesting, but it seems to have erred a bit in attributing the dawn of the Space Age to the Wright Brothers' invention. The problem here is that the Space Age has been dependent not on aeronautics as pioneered by Wilbur and Orville Wright, but on rocketry as pioneered by Robert H. Goddard and the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who had written an article proposing a rocket as a vehicle for spaceflight five years prior to the Wright Brothers' first flight. Even now, almost a hundred years after the first airplane flight, we are still reliant on rockets for leaving Earth's gravity, the Space Shuttle notwithstanding (the Shuttle being basically a supersized glider attached to a rocket for launching purposes -- in fact, the Shuttle is entirely useless as a flying machine). It's certainly true that our current technological society is a case of "standing on the shoulders of giants", but in the case of spaceflight the giants are Goddard and Tsiolkovsky, not the Wright Brothers.

When encountering a work of art with which I am unfamiliar, I have always found it helpful to place the work in something of a historical context – not only within the milieu of the events of the day, but also within the context of the other arts with which the present work is contemporary. I imagine that most people do this, if they are artistically and historically aware, to the extent that they are able. For me, most often this means that I consider the present work in the context of the music being produced at that time. In the case of The Brothers Karamazov, therefore, I have been considering the music of Russian Romanticism in the late nineteenth century, occasionally even listening to this music while reading Dostoevsky’s novel.

The music of the Russian Romantic period differs from that of, say, Germany in that the Russian composers of the time were not only Romantics but they were also among the first Nationalists. Nationalism in music – the conscious reliance by a composer on his nation’s body of native folk music – became a powerful force in the late nineteenth century, with the Russians forming the most famous "bloc" of nationalist composers. This is what gives the music of composers like Glinka, Balakirev, Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov its distinctively Russian character; even when these composers are not using actual folk tunes in their compositions, their music still carries that folk flavor.

One possible reason why the Russian Romantic composers were also Nationalists may be the fact that Russia was very late in developing its own musical tradition – in fact, Russia was very late in developing beyond a medieval society in the first place. The Russian musical scene up to the mid-eighteenth century was dominated by foreign music, primarily that of Italy. There are no important Russian composers of note from the Baroque or Classical periods. It was not until Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) that Russian music began to blossom on its own, with his opera A Life for the Czar. Russia's tardiness in musical development meant that there was no musical establishment for Russian composers to follow as the nineteenth century marched on; without the resulting sense of tradition and academic constraints upon the compositional process (Russia had no conservatory of music as late as 1850), the budding Russian musical movement was thus enchanted with the freedom offered by Nationalism, as first displayed by Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. The Russians were not the first Nationalists, but Russia was the first place where Nationalism truly became a force in music.

I don't want to give the impression, though, that the music of Romantic Russia is concerned exclusively with folk-songs and ethnic character and not with traditional musical elements like form, harmony and orchestration. Nationalism in music does not necessarily refer to the use of actual folk music, but rather on a character that is folk-like, even while the Russians were using traditional forms in their compositions – symphonies, concertos, et cetera. Leonard Bernstein once put it this way: "Tchaikovsky's symphonies are German symphonies with vodka substituted for beer." That's a good way of putting it.

Tomorrow I will post a bit on specific Russian composers whose music I particularly admire.

(I am indebted to the book The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg for some of the material in this article.)

Some ISP weirdness led to my absence yesterday. Annoying, but without Net access I actually got a lot done. And this Internet thing is supposed to increase productivity....

Monday, December 16, 2002

I watched very little football yesterday. Next week is likely to be the last Bills game of the year (at Green Bay) that I'll be able to watch; I would be extremely surprised if the Bills sold out their season finale against....the Bengals. Who wants to go out on a December Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a place so windy that they could erect windmills there to power the place if they wanted, to watch the Bills in a meaningless game against the NFL's worst team? Not me! I expect attendance at that game to total around forty thousand (the stadium seats something like 75,000).

:: I'm glad the Bills won, and a bit surprised -- the Chargers had more to play for, and despite the game's cold climate the Chargers' game is well-suited to road games in the cold. They're a power-rushing team that doesn't put the ball in the air much, and they have an underrated defense. From what I could tell listening to the radio, Junior Seau is still a force to reckon with. Drew Bledsoe had a forgettable game -- not a disaster, like his games against the Patriots, but not inspiring, either. The defense seems to have adopted a "bend but don't break" philosophy, which works sometimes but can drive one crazy.

The Bills' running back Travis Henry could post the fourth highest total in rushing yardage in Bills' history this year, eclipsing Thurman Thomas's best season (1992) and only looking up at O.J. Simpson's three best years. Henry has 1,312 yards right now, with two games left. I don't recall the number he needs exactly, but it's something like 170 yards over the next two games. My question, though, is why on earth Henry is only averaging about nineteen carries a game. A workhorse RB like Henry should be getting around thirty carries a game, which would ease things on the offensive line and Drew Bledsoe, who has been forcing his throws lately in the belief that he has to overcome his own team's defensive shortcomings.

I got to watch the last two minutes of yesterday's game, because all of the other games on CBS had gone final, so they offered "bonus coverage"...which was the Bills and Chargers. Thus, I got to see Doug Flutie's last attempt at magic. I don't think Flutie has the physical tools anymore to really play in the NFL, but there is no question that he once did. There's no reason why he had to spend most of his playing years in the CFL.

:: In this "year of streaks" in the NFL, getting hot at the right time -- the way the Patriots did last year -- could be the key to whichever team ends up going all the way. The NFC race is a thrill, with the Packers, Eagles and Buccaneers all heating up. In the AFC, the Dolphins look like the hottest team right now -- but there's no telling if that will remain the case. In any case, it's a strange feeling to be just two weeks away from the end of the season, and still not have a single playoff berth in the AFC clinched. Wow.

:: For Christmas, every player on the New York Jets should get a CD containing nothing but seventy-five minutes of Chris Berman, saying "That's why they play the games...."

:: The status of my Super Bowl picks: the amazing Eagles are not only doing OK without Donovan McNabb, they're actually fluorishing and may actually win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I'm not sure if McNabb would come back for the playoffs then, or at least the NFC Championship Game if they advance that far, but the injury that seemed likely to kill the Eagles' season now looks like a mere speed-bump on their way to the postseason. The Steelers control their own destiny in the AFC North; they only need a single victory in their last two games to secure the division. However, that may prove a bit difficult: their next game is at Tampa (with the Bucs still fighting for home-field), and they wind things up at home against Baltimore. If the Steelers lose to the Bucs, and the Ravens beat the Browns this weekend, then that game would be a winner-take-the-division showdown, with the loser likely exiting the playoff picture. Of course, if the Steelers beat the Bucs on Monday night, then the game against Baltimore is meaningless except for playoff-seeding purposes, if even that.

:: This season, with the amazing parity in the AFC, reminds me in a way of the seasons ten years ago or so, when there would be no dominant AFC team and an 11-5 record would be good for top-seed in the playoffs. Back then, the NFC was clearly the better conference, as was made plain each year when the AFC Champion would be beaten -- most times, badly -- by the NFC Champion in the Super Bowl. But then, there are differences: back then there was always a dominant NFC team, either Dallas or San Francisco or Washington, for whom the entire season would be an inexorable march toward the title. That's not the case this year for the NFC, and a look at the standings reveals that the NFC has seven teams with records of .500 or better, while the AFC sports thirteen such teams. There are only three losing teams in the AFC, and one of those -- Jacksonville -- could well be a winning team if a few breaks had gone its way. Right now, the three best teams in the NFL are all in the NFC, but the AFC on average seems to be better, and none of those three top NFC teams would be any kind of lock over any of the realistic AFC champions. So here we are, with only two weeks left in the season, and twenty of the NFL's thirty-two teams still have a mathematical chance at the Super Bowl.

I haven't posted much here about my various writing projects lately, so a couple of updates:

:: The novel-in-progress (otherwise known as the damned book, or officially, The Promised King: The Welcomer) is proceeding apace, although I had to take four whacks at a certain scene last week. It's a scene where one of my main villains meets a person he has seriously wronged face-to-face for the first time in the work. These scenes are very hard to write without having them sound like the standard "James Bond meets the bad guy" type of thing. These characters have history that extends long before the events of the book, and the hard thing to execute is the sense that the villain genuinely believes himself to be the hero. There are contexts in which villains like the evil Queen in Disney's Sleeping Beauty can work ("You thought you could defeat the Queen of All Evil???") but my current work is not one of them. Villains have to have reasons for what it is they are doing, beyond "because it's the evil thing to do". The most interesting villains aren't the purely selfish ones; the most interesting villains are the ones who genuinely believe that the world will be a better place when their selfish goals are realized.

Now I'm on to my heroine's "mystic quest", which takes place outside the actions in the novel's "real world". This is where I can plug in a lot of the weirdness I've been saving from all of my readings into Celtic mythology. One item that has me waffling is whether or not to include a passage where she must successfully answer a riddle before she can proceed. I'm leaning toward including it, because riddles are part-and-parcel of Celtic myth and legend, but I also don't want the thing to end up reminiscent of The Hobbit.

:: My current short story (no title yet; I rarely have titles for my stories at the outset of writing) has been in cryogenic slumber for a while because I had reached the Third Act, and I had no idea what to do at that point. I don't outline, and in many cases I don't even figure out the ending of a story before I start writing it. It's usually been my experience that the ending will occur to me much earlier in the process, when I'm halfway done, perhaps. (And that's only in cases where I don't know the ending beforehand; sometimes I do.) But with this story, I was truly stumped.

But, yesterday I think I figured out where to go with it. The key, of course, is the famous bit of advice: Murder your darlings. Basically, I realized that one of my main characters dies in a rather nasty manner. The only thing bugging me is that I'm still undecided on what action my heroine will take once this particular character has expired. She can do one of two things, and the trouble is that both may be in character for her.

:: Three stories went out last week to various editors, for perusal and immediate rejection. Unless, of course, I manage to glom onto some of this guy's luck and actually sell a story for once.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I'm waiting until after I've seen the film to write a detailed analysis of the score to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Suffice it to say, though, the score CD is an absolute joy. My skin literally shivered as I heard the Ring motif in the very first seconds of the album, and judging by the motifs from the first film revisited in that opening cue, I can only imagine what is depicted in the film's opening scene. I cannot it Wednesday yet?

One reason I was able to complete my Christmas shopping today is that the Bills game (against the Chargers) did not sell out 72 hours before kick-off, so the NFL's blackout rule kicked in....but I'm wondering, why? My understanding -- and it's borne out by a few minutes of searching online -- is that the rule applies to a 75-mile radius from the stadium in question. Syracuse is roughly 140 miles away from Orchard Park, NY, where Ralph Wilson Stadium is located. Why, then, should the game be blacked out in Syracuse? especially when the TV markets don't overlap, given the presence of Rochester, NY between the cities of Buffalo and Syracuse? Perhaps someone can explain this to me.

I don't have much to say about the whole Trent Lott fiasco, except to note that since it was not an "off-the-cuff" remark -- a la Al Gore's unfortunate wording that got morphed into the urban legend that he invented the Internet -- but rather an actual, written comment in Lott's text for that day, I can't fathom what on earth he was thinking. Even if he is a raging racist (and I suspect he's at least a non-raging racist), surely a politician of his experience would be able to craft his rhetoric better than this. I caught a replay of the moment the other day, and I was so flabbergasted that he could actually, knowingly write and say those words without realizing how they would be interpreted, I could only think of that scene in Reality Bites where the Winona Ryder character finally has had enough with the nasty female anchor on the news show she writes for that she slips some...unfortunate words into the prompter feed, causing the anchor to say something live, on-the-air, like "I wet myself". Of course, that's not the case here, although Lott might well wish it was.

We all say stupid things, things we wish we could take back. But we rarely plan on saying stupid things. We rarely put them into the body of our prepared text. This is precisely the kind of laughably absurd story that keeps me a political junkie (although I try not to write about that here).

Another reason I've been light on the blogging lately is typical for this time of year: Christmas shopping. I'm all done now, and it was fairly painless -- even the insanity of trips to the mall on a Saturday and a Sunday in December. The only irritating thing was in the way people these days appear sometimes to have completely forgotten that the concept of "personal space" ever existed -- at times, in various stores, I felt like a pinball being bumped around a set of bumpers.

We also taped all of the yearly Christmas specials so we could watch them on a single night -- Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and my favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. We also ended up watching a couple of newer "sequels" to those classic shows, which were not very good. I'm all for sophisticated humor and whatnot, but the line "Let's go out in the snow and make a fertility goddess!" simply does not belong in a Christmas special. Nothing against fertility goddesses, but to everything a time and place, eh?

One benefit of the health-regimen I adopted last January has been that I've spent the time since almost cold-free, except for a couple of one-day bugs. Well, that ended this weekend. Ugh.

Luckily, this cold -- even though it's lasted two and a half days -- is still nowhere near as bad as some of the nasty colds I've had in the past. I still do not believe in taking 10000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day, but I have to believe that my weight loss combined with my exercise regimen combined with taking a multivitamin each day has something to do with it.

Thursday, December 12, 2002


Ballycotton Lighthouse, Ireland.

I was doing a bit of noodling around on the Web, looking for information on lighthouses -- research for a future writing project, really -- and I found this lovely image of a lighthouse in Ireland, which seems to me to capture both the beauty and the solitude (or loneliness) of a lighthouse.

A good clearing-house type of site for lighthouse images can be found here.

Some book notes are due today.

:: The vagaries of the publishing world require that some classic works of fantasy fiction stay in print forever, as in the case of The Lord of the Rings. Others, however, are left to go out-of-print for long periods, after which they are reissued by another publisher, stay in print for a while, and then go out-of-print again. One example of this phenomenon is John Bellairs's wonderful first novel, The Face In the Frost. It's in print and available now, but despite this book's near classic status in the fantasy field, it's been vaccilating in and out of print ever since its initial publication in 1969.

The Face In the Frost is Bellairs's only work of adult fiction. After its publication, he turned his attentions to children's literature, producing a body of work much of which has never gone out of print. His specialty was gothic fiction, and he was very adept at creating suspense and unnerving moods through atmosphere and characterization rather than through graphic gore or shock value, and while all of his children's books entertained me greatly, a number of them actually caused me to leave the light on in the hallway all night, lest one of Bellairs's demonic creations enter my room get the picture. Bellairs is also able to accomplish this kind of scare in The Face In the Frost, and in re-reading it last week -- for the first time in nearly ten years, since I bought the book last time it was published -- I discovered anew this writer's gifts.

It's not all horror, though; Bellairs is one of those "chiaroscuro"-type writers who leavens his scary material with humor, some of which is immensely funny. This was true of all of his children's books, and it is true in The Face In the Frost, but the humor is based more on puns and literary in-jokes than on the follies of exaggerated personalities from his works for young readers. His language is also a joy. This is a book where characters utter lines like this: "Oh, good heavens! Great elephantine, cloudy, adamant heavens full of thunder stones!" It's a book where a wizard sits down before his magic mirror to plumb the depths of what his scrying device might reveal...only to have the mirror show him a game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants.

The story is fairly straightforward: two wizards, Prospero ("and not the one you are thinking of, either") and Roger Bacon, are dear old friends who stumble onto the activities of a third wizard who is, as they say, "dabbling in the black arts". The book follows their adventures as they attempt to find this wizard, identify his aims, and finally balk them. The plot really isn't the thing, here; with Bellairs, the emphasis is on language, mood and character. The Face In the Frost is a joy, and any person claiming to be a lover of fantasy but has not read this book is, as Bellairs might say, "a pompous, posturing hornswoggler....guilty of mystagogic muckification and pointless prattle".

:: If I had been a scientist, my sciences of choice would have been, without question, astronomy and cosmology. I've always been keenly interested in the stars and the universe and the Big Bang and how it all fits together. It really is what Carl Sagan called "the grandest of mysteries", and there is nothing in my mind so beautiful as to look at a moonless night sky, filled with stars.

Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees is a brief precis of the state of cosmology today and of the problems facing cosmology right now. This brief book is fairly short on the history, instead giving a quick background on the nature of the stars and planets, of gravity, and of the shape of the universe before delving into the questions of origins. The book's central focus is on examining the possible answers to Einstein's famous query: "Could God have made the world differently?" I won't summarize Rees's answers to that question here (partly because I'm not entirely sure I understood them), but I will note that the book is compelling, written in a clear and concise style that, being as devoid as is possible of scientific jargon, makes it all about as clear as it's likely to get. Particularly fascinating is Rees's discussion of how the qualities of our observable universe, from the shapes of galaxies and the formation of stars to the rise of life itself, are dependent on a small group of "initial settings" -- numbers which, if their values are changed even minutely, would have led to a much different universe -- and very likely precluded life at all.

Readers looking for a history of cosmological thought would be better served by Carl Sagan's Cosmos (which really should be read by everybody, anyway) or Timothy Ferris's Coming of Age In the Milky Way, but readers wanting to know just where we stand right now as far as science's understanding of the universe could do far worse than to read Rees's book. Rees is, among other things, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain.

:: Those of you who tend to walk right by the "Bargain Books" section at Borders or Barnes&Noble, cut it out! You never know what treasures lurk on those haphazardly-stacked tables. The other day I was perusing the "Bargain Book" table at Media Play, and I found Roger Ebert's Book of Film for six bucks, in hardcover. I'm not the filmgoer that I used to be, but this is a terrific collection of film-related essays and writings.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Ah, to partake in every blogger's solution to a lazy day: Random Linkage!!!

:: I saved this link a while ago and forgot about it. It's a Slate article about the shortcomings of President Bush's new initiatives on "forest management", otherwise known as "Give the loggers what they want".

:: Harry Knowles doesn't like Star Trek: Nemesis.

:: Yes, this is shamelessly filched from MeFi, but any lover of Edgar Allan Poe should love this 404 message.

:: WOW. This is one of the few times a website has ever made my eyes pop. Trust me on this.

Over at Ed's Daily Rant, Ed recently took a breather from short and pithy (and entertaining) political observations to present something of a guide to the wide, wonderful world of....malt liquor. Malt liquor isn't my thing, really, but once in a while it's neat for a change. It's sure better than that Zima stuff....

A new round of books for sale can be found in my "Marketplace" section. Go forth and bid.

Now that I'm living in Syracuse, I'm obviously out of touch with what's going on in Buffalo. Thus, I have to wonder if any of that city's "leaders" -- the ones who are falling over themselves in trying to get an Indian-run casino built downtown, with promises of spawning lots of development and economic boosting of the Seneca Nation of Indians -- have bothered to read TIME Magazine's cover story this week. I'm guessing, probably not.

I've complained before about NBC's habit of ruining surprises in episodes of its shows, by their insistence on doing promos that invariably warn us not to miss the last five minutes or to be on the lookout for a twist no one could see coming. (Well, now that I've been told about it, I can see it coming, can't I?) Until yesterday, I was glad that this annoyance was confined to NBC. Sadly, FOX appears to have been bitten by the bug, based on their commercials prior to last night's episode of 24. There was a surprise development at the end of the episode, involving the trunk of a car, which FOX was nice enough to telegraph in the promos, with a cop shouting "Open the trunk!" followed by a shot of one of the characters standing over the open trunk, screaming "Oh my God", and the announcer then intoning in grand NBC style, "A twist you won't believe", or something like that. The problem is, as soon as I knew that this particular character was shocked about something in the trunk of this particular car, there was only one possibility as to what the item in the trunk could be. I had it figured out before the commercial was even over, much less before last night's episode even began (I saw the ad during That 70s Show).

The worst part is that this development would have been shocking, had FOX allowed the surprise to be sprung upon us as the show's producers clearly intended it to be. I actually was shocked by this plot twist, but why couldn't FOX have let me be shocked during the damned show? For a surprise plot twist to really work, we have to first be unaware that there is a surprise plot twist in the first place. Of course, the networks don't care about that; what they're after is ratings and ad revenue, so they want to keep viewers from switching channels, so this is their strategy. But that doesn't stop it from being completely annoying.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Derek Bell, harpist for the wonderful Celtic music group The Chieftains, has died. He was a wonderful musician and will be missed. A fine tribute to Bell can be found here.

(Edited to remove photograph by request.)

The Western has never been my favorite genre; for some reason, I always find it hard to relate to the concerns of the characters in them. That's not to say that I dislike Westerns, though, as I've loved some of the recent ones: Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, Silverado, and most notably, Unforgiven. The older Westerns, though, usually don't resonate with me very much -- I admire their craft, and enjoy their stories, but as a whole they're not really my cup of tea.

A case in point is The Searchers, which I just watched this weekend. To be perfectly honest, I probably would never have bothered to watch this film if not for the fact that a major subplot of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is reportedly an homage to The Searchers: Anakin Skywalker's search for his mother, who has been abducted by sandpeople. The story of The Searchers is fairly straight-forward: a frontier family is attacked by an Indian tribe (Comanches, I think), and the father, mother and son are murdered while the two daughters are carried off. A posse, of course, is formed to go after them, and after failing, two of the possemen closest to the family -- the John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter characters -- go on alone, having a number of adventures before finally locating the tribe that has abducted the two daughters.

The film is fairly dark, with racism in its subtext. The Wayne character hates the Comanches with frightening passion, so much so that he also seems to hate the Jeffrey Hunter character, who is something like one-eighth Indian. Wayne barely treats Hunter like a person throughout the film, calling him things like "Blankethead" and refusing to let him drink in a saloon. He also makes clear that his intent, upon finding the missing girls, is not to rescue them but to kill them -- because by that point they will have become Comanche themselves. Wayne portrays this character as a man whose soul is constantly roiling in anger, and Hunter portrays his in much the same way, but their respective angers are different, which creates a great deal of tension between the two men. This is the best aspect of The Searchers (along with the frequently stunning cinematography).

There are subplots along the way that did not engage me -- prime among them, a love story between Hunter and, well, some woman. (I can't recall the character names from this movie for the life of me....) This whole storyline felt like padding, interjected into the film to give it running time. It distracted from the dynamic between Wayne and Hunter, and it distracted from the main concern of the plot. Thus, a lean and taut film took on a flabby aspect. As to my failure to really relate to the concerns of the characters, as mentioned above, I'm not entirely sure what this family is doing in that spot in the first place. The land they live on appears to be smack in the middle of a vast desert, with no crops and no irrigation, and they don't appear to be ranching (although I might well have missed this). I felt like their sole purpose was to be out in the wilderness, just to be kidnapped in the first place.

So, I'm reporting a mixed reaction to The Searchers. I can see some of why it is so highly regarded -- but at the same time, I can't admit to having really enjoyed it.

You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting .300? I got it figured out. Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points. Okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks--you get one extra flare a week--just one--a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail -- just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium!

              -- Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), BullDurham

It is now that part of the NFL season known as "crunch time", when the playoff picture begins to solidify. This is when the best teams put their divisions away and shift their focus to securing home-field advantage or a first-round bye, and when a cluster of good teams start jockeying either for third (and, new this year, fourth) seed division titles and wild-card playoff berths. Each week sees more teams that have been "on the bubble" slide off it, into the ranks of the also-rans, and the worst teams start to play for pride and for the pleasure of being a spoiler. And for the teams on the bubble, this is when the season can become agonizing; this is the time of year where when the season is over, the players will look back and remember that one game or -- in some cases -- that one play that took them out of playoff contention. December is when a football season either becomes a success or a failure, and when the ones who fail look back and achingly wonder why they couldn't get that one more first down, not lose that one fumble, not had that one ball that was batted into the air come down into the arms of a defender, that might have meant that one more win and a season in January. This is when they wish for the football equivalent of that "one more dying quail".

:: For the Buffalo Bills, the end of their playoff hopes came yesterday with their definitive loss to the Patriots. It wasn't as bad as the 38-7 debacle at home a few weeks back; they played tougher yesterday, on the road, and their defense actually acquitted itself fairly well, although the tackling still needs a lot of work. The fault yesterday was squarely on Drew Bledsoe's shoulders: he threw four interceptions. Turnovers, as always, are the single thing most likely to utterly kill a football team. There isn't really much more I can say about this game, except that the Bills have shown a lot of progress this year. Their remaining three games are for redemption; even if they win them all -- an unlikely event -- to finish 9-7, they would need a series of miracles to make the playoffs. Next week they are home for the Chargers, who are in the thick of the playoff hunt and will need a win; then they visit the Packers, who have clinched their division but need to keep winning to get home-field advantage; and then they wind things up with an exhibition game against one of the lesser college teams (the Cincinnati Bengals).

:: For further instruction on how turnovers can kill you, look at the Steelers game yesterday. Instead of beating an expansion team to join the eight-game winners in the AFC and solidify their position in first place in the AFC North, they lost 24-6 to the Texans despite gaining almost nine yards for every yard gained by Houston. (Houston's 47 total yards is the lowest number of total yards gained by a winning team in NFL history.) The culprit? Five turnovers, three of those courtesy of Tommy Maddox. Now the Steelers are only a half-game ahead of the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North. If they want to make the playoffs (and keep my Super Bowl prediction alive!), the Steelers must win their division. I don't see a wild-card team coming from this division.

:: My other Super Bowl pick, the Eagles, kept their pace by beating the Seahawks. The Eagles are one of three ten-win teams -- all of them in the NFC -- and a victory next week will give them the NFC East title.

:: The Chiefs won't make the playoffs, but they are sure looking impressive in the last two weeks. They have won their last two games by the combined score of 98-10.

:: The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC may well end up going through Tampa. The Bucs appear to have the easiest remaining schedule of the three ten-win teams in the conference. And recent history may be on the side of the Bucs: four of the last five Super Bowl champions were teams that, at that point, had never won a Super Bowl before.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

I lived in one of Buffalo's larger suburbs, and one that directly borders the city, for two years. In that time there was only one instance of crime in our vicinity, an isolated incident of domestic violence that did not recur. In that incident, some property was destroyed but there were no injuries.

Now, we've moved to a smaller suburb that is farther away from a city that is already half Buffalo's size. We live in a moderately upscale residential community that has its own golf course and elementary school. Not a gated community, but still pretty nice and quiet and the town is small.

And two mornings ago, a murder occurred in a townhouse less than a quarter of a mile away from our apartment. There have been scant details released yet, so we don't know if it was a domestic dispute gone wrong or a burglar who got interrupted in his break-in. The murder happened, apparently, around 10:30 Friday morning....when we were all at home. So while we're home drinking coffee and surfing the Net and watching Sesame Street, a man was dying of a gunshot wound less than a thousand yards away.

It's always frightening when the world decides to remind me that it can be a disturbingly random place.